By Dawn Robinson-Walsh:
Researching the life of Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot artist Pamela Colman Smith, I felt like an imposter: I am not an artist, I am not a mystic, I am not a Catholic.
While I had no specific theoretical or ideological agenda, I did question many assumptions made about Pamela by bloggers – assumptions about her race and sexuality, for starters, seemed to have little supportive evidence in fact.
I first encountered Pamela Colman Smith (b.1878) when writing Secret Bude. It was only then that I happened upon the famous Tarot artist, realising she had died in the relatively sedate but beautiful Cornish coastal town I am so attached to. Pamela (also known in her earlier life as Pixie) lived her later years here in Bude. If more people acknowledged her, she could be quite a tourist attraction for Bude.
I soon realised that Pamela was more than the sum of her various parts, and her entire life story could not be told simply via a deck of Tarot cards, any more than it could by her work with the Lyceum Theatre (c. 1900) or her early family background; however, they all played a part in developing her persona and ever-changing circumstances.
Additionally, most people’s primary focus on her work as a Tarot artist effectively meant her life, work and potential worth (in the public eye) stopped by around the age of thirty, which, to me, simply could not be accurate. Fame is not the only hallmark of success. Pamela lived to be seventy-three, her life evolving as all lives do.
The Bude Connection
Pamela’s story was not without some magic, in which I was quite prepared to believe. At a local level, the first issue was Pamela’s final resting place; her burial spot. The exact position was a mystery, and one which, amazingly, many people found fascinating, such as notable writers (the late) Stuart Kaplan and Marcus Katz, who had visited Bude on a mission to find the exact placement of her grave.
Here is where the magic comes in. Back in 2017, a group of twenty-four Tarot Magic in Merlin’s Britain visitors, led by AmericanTarot writer, Mary Greer, asked to meet me in Bude to search for Pamela’s grave, as an unofficial tour guide. We met at St Michael’s Church, near the historic Falcon Hotel. A local had advised me of roughly where Pamela was expected to be buried as a pauper, close to the edge near the woods, in the older part of the churchyard. We knew she was definitely buried at St Michael’s; however, the documentation advising exactly where had been lost in a fire many years before, long before records became centralised in Truro. So, it was left to imagination and magic to uncover, using dowsing rods and pendulums – all new to me! It was not scientific but I was prepared to ‘go with the flow’ and let them work their magic. It was in my interests, too, to find Pamela’s grave but I am not convinced we could, at the end of it, say ‘X marks the spot’.
The group also brought along a medium. The outer corner of the old churchyard seemed to yield a very positive response. Bemused, I found myself standing in a circle, along with Bude’s (late) Barbara Alexander with her lovely pink hair, each speaking our gratitude to Pamela for creating her lovely Tarot deck, and all her other art works. When it came to my turn to give thanks to her, I could only thank her for dying in Bude, which sounded bizarre, but which is what brought me to her life story. One of the participants dropped her pendulum in the spot where the grave was thought to be. She (and I) heard it hit the ground but no amount of searching found it. It seemed lost, donated back to Pamela. On their bus, however, the driver asked if anyone had left a pendulum behind. There it inexplicably was.
The group then moved on to the Camelot Hotel at Tintagel, a place Pamela had once visited. In the bar (Pamela liked a drink, so it was fitting) the group used the pendulum to ask the mischievous Pixie whether she had returned it to the bus – the answer was ‘yes’. They also asked if they had found her burial site and asked many more questions, which yielded nothing definitive. Those present viewed it as a sign that Pamela’s spirit was definitely there with us that day. Maybe the message was ‘stop looking for my grave and focus on more important parts of my life’.
Some of the visitors also came along to the Bencoolen Inn; previously flats, including one where Pamela lived and died. Landlady, Lorraine Puerto-Terron, had many tales to tell of mischievous ghostly happenings at the Inn; for example, cutlery being rearranged and reordered. That said, remnants of the wreck of the Bencoolen are everywhere so the source of such spirits is uncertain.
A year later, Linda Marson of Global Spiritual Studies followed the same journey. Her pendulum was the one lost during the previous visit. She went around the graveyard testing her pendulum in various spots, getting the answer ‘no’ at places where she knew Pamela was not buried (i.e., places with gravestones as Pam’s grave was unmarked). When she returned to the spot from the previous year, the pendulum turned to ‘yes’. Others in the group who did not know the site from previously also achieved ‘yes’ responses from their pendulums and dowsing rods. So, who knows?
Why is Pam’s life important? Well, she enjoys posthumous fame for designing an intuitive Tarot deck which is a bestseller; worldwide, is said to have over 100 million copies in circulation, which is pretty amazing by anyone’s standards. She remains shrouded in aura and mystery, a woman whose friends and patrons included photographer and art promoter, Alfred Stieglitz, and famous writer, Bram Stoker, but who sadly, made little money from her work during her lifetime, due largely to being a woman in a man’s world.
How did she obtain the job? She was a prolific freelance illustrator/artist. She also cultivated friends and contacts – and used her sense of ‘difference’, that’s how. Pamela, at times, came across as an outsider, but that helped her to play her role within her wide social circle. Times were hard for single women during the early twentieth century when husbands, even if wanted, were not always easy to find. Pamela, a storyteller of some renown, provided soirees or salons for London bohemians seeking something new and different. Ostentation, colour, vibrancy and excitement were the order of the day, along with Moorish, Oriental and Asiatic influences.
It is not too surprising that in 1907, a year before her thirtieth birthday, she was described by Swallows and Amazons author, Arthur Ransome, as a storyteller, nicknamed Gypsy, who told tales using Jamaican patois. She dressed the part, calling herself ‘Gelukiezanger’, teller of West Indian folk stories. Ransome described her ‘mad room’ as if something from a fairy tale. The walls were dark green, with every available space covered with sketches, paintings and a double-edged (presumably ceremonial) sword hanging from a hook. The room was stuffed with loose sheet music, heaps of crimson silk and a multitude of candles, with incense burning in an urn suspended from the ceiling. Miscellaneous oddments helped create the exotic atmosphere. Pamela wore bright robes, her hair tied in an oriental scarf, strings of coral and amber beads around her neck. She sat cross-legged with five candles twinkling before her. She definitely put effort into her appearance and the backdrop, which was a room full of eclectic junk. Even the drink, claret and lemonade, was given the rather more exotic name of ‘opal hush’. Pamela, feted for her recital skills, understood impression management, and how to play an audience, but the events must have been exhausting.
She mixed with an array of creative thinkers. Pamela’s early friends, such as the poet W.B. Yeats, about whom she was initially scathing, grew her sense of mysticism. He introduced her, in 1901, to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, leading many to believe she had a strong interest in the occult. Through the organisation, Arthur Waite met her and commissioned the Tarot cards. Waite’s biographer, Gilbert, labelled the Golden Dawn as a ‘society of would-be magicians’, aiming to help people know themselves through ceremonial magic, which obviously filled a need of some sort in Pamela’s life at that time. She was also interested in the Celtic Revival, behind which Yeats was a driving force. She was fascinated by folklore, creatures such as fairies, the Sidhe, and other mythologies, so this may have been a time of self-reflection and introspection for her.
Reading all this, I often thought that maybe I would have had nothing in common with Pamela!
She met many members of the occult community in London. However, she seemed to drift both into it and within it. Even Waite suggested her interest never went subsurface. However, despite him calling her a ‘draughtswoman’ who needed proper guidance (from him, obviously) he was not blind to her artistic gifts, and her work completed the first commercially available Tarot deck to be produced. Waite, of course, took the credit.
History has treated Pamela as Waite’s pawn (only left to her own artistic and imaginative devices to illustrate the pip cards/Minor Arcana). It is believed that she probably used the Sola Busca deck as inspiration for this. However, she did not complain; she was simply happy to sell her work and earn some money. There are few indications that Pamela was especially mystical but she was prepared to buy into it if it sold.
She was also considered by many to have a neurological condition called synaesthesia, a condition where a sensation in one of the senses such as hearing, triggers a sensation in another. Pamela’s version (if she had it at all) involved creating pictures from music. A chameleon, she had numerous personas, the more exotic of which were crucial to her making her mark as a single woman artist. Strangeness and promotion of difference gave her an audience. Synaesthesia was just one way, according to academic Kathleen Pyne, that she could conveniently place herself in the London milieu of English and Irish mystics (Pyne, K 2007). Mysticism then was part of an economic system and Pamela could see its potential.
Most Pamela aficionados are firmly steeped in the Tarot world, so it is right and proper that their focus is on her illustrations for the world-famous deck, and on the more esoteric side of her nature, a side which my book visits but only briefly dwells upon. However, the deck sealed Pamela as an artist, even if not in her lifetime.
At the time of her commission, Pamela was paid poorly (a flat rate) and her name was omitted from the Rider-Waite deck, as was the convention of the time, but she did include her initials on every card bar The Fool, as if to make her mark. Her monogram (pictured below) resembles a caduceus with snake-entwined staff formed by the letter P, overlaid with C and S. Waite commissioned Pamela as a ‘very skilful and original artist’ who also had some knowledge of Tarot values and was ‘deeply versed in the subject’, but reckoned that he had to work hard to stop Pamela casually picking up floating images (referring to her alleged synaesthesia) though art historians suggest Pamela probably used this as a device to retain control of her own work. After all, no one could argue with a natural phenomenon, could they?
In 1911, Pamela converted to Catholicism and remained a faithful convert to the end.
The Cornwall Years
As so little was known about Pamela’s later life, I hoped to but did not expect to, find out more about her Cornwall years. My big breakthroughs came from a local gentleman, the late Tony Edwards, who was Miss Smith’s errand boy in Bude, and via communication with the Catholic Church through the Plymouth Diocesan Archive. Tony had never before been prepared to talk to any researcher about Miss Smith, as he knew Pamela, so I was privileged indeed. His memories gave me great insights into Pamela’s character which would otherwise certainly have been lost, for he had written nothing down. It was Tony who told me I really needed to visit the Lizard to truly understand her.
One of the many myths circulating and perpetuated about Pamela was that she had set up a holiday home for priests on the Lizard in West Cornwall, having moved there at the end of World War I in 1918. My investigations showed this to be false, which, in research terms, felt massive at the time.
She was received into the Catholic Church in 1911, two years after she completed the Tarot deck. Being received into the Catholic Church is not easy and would have taken a couple of years. It is almost certain that Pamela was preparing to become a Catholic while still working on the Tarot deck for Waite. This, to me, indicated that her interest in mysticism was limited, that the job was a paid commission; something she needed as a jobbing freelance illustrator, rather than due to any great conviction about the Golden Dawn.
I visited numerous locations on the Lizard which she had known, from Cadgwith Cove to Kynance Cove. What I uncovered was that Pamela’s life there was much more difficult and complex than anyone could imagine. She spent most of her time on the Lizard in a lovely home, Parc Garland, where her main concern was to help the Catholic mission by establishing and maintaining a Catholic chapel in a building adjacent to the house.
The new owner of Parc Garland is an artist. She was surprised by the number of obelisks around the property, indicating, she felt, a retained occult interest, along with a belief that Pixie continued to read the Tarot in her attic, which had a good deal of paint on the floor and windows indicating, additionally, a lasting interest in art. The chapel (Pixie’s ‘Cathedral’ and previously a coach house) is also still there but tumbled down. The book explains in more detail why I think Pixie made the journey to Cornwall, spending money from her Uncle Theodore on a property there.
Very kindly, a member of the Catholic History Group revisited Parc Garland for me as it was derelict when I went. She mentioned to the owner that she felt Pixie would be pleased to have an artist living in her house. At that time, she reported feeling the hairs go up on the back of her neck. If it is Pamela’s spirit, then she seemed at her happiest in Parc Garland. The new owner mentioned that her husband often told visitors that the house used to be owned by a lesbian artist (her sexuality is a common misconception because Pamela lived with her widowed housekeeper, Nora Lake, after Nora’s husband, Alfred, predeceased her). She said that every time he repeated this story, she heard in her head Pamela saying “we were just friends, Nora and I, nothing more”.
In terms of my own writing experience, I was fortunate to find space at the studio of an artist friend, Lynne Holehouse, to write and edit. Next to Bude Canal, Wharf Studio is overseen by St Michael’s Churchyard where Pamela is buried. Upon the hour, the bells ring out. At the time, they served to remind me of my ongoing task of unravelling Pamela’s life. One day, sitting in the studio alone, editing, I was trying to work on a particular chapter. Lynne had created a painting of her representation of Pamela which sat, as large as life, peering at me as I worked. Every time I tried to complete a specific task, my laptop would freeze and refuse to save the work. This repeated a number of times.
On my request to Pamela, threatening to give up on her story, it stopped happening. Make of that what you will.
Ransome, A. (1907) Bohemia in London Dodd, Mead and Co
Waite A (1938) Shadows of Life and Thought Selwyn and Blount
Pamela Colman Smith – Tarot Artist by Dawn G Robinson is published by Fonthill Media, 2020, available in all good bookshops and online. In 2018, Treadwell’s in London was able to acquire the fireplace from Parc Garland and reinstall it in the bookshop.